In the last few weeks there were hectares of gleeful sledging of Bob Brown, after he came out against a proposed wind farm of 163 turbines on Robbins Island, off the coast of north west Tasmania. But he was absolutely right to. And the intervention was far more significant than his critics could understand.
The privately-owned island’s proximity to the north west coast creates a wind corridor ideal for turbines. But it’s also rich in bird life for the same reason, and such a concentration of turbines would flay several species towards extinction, while also dominating a narrow corner of landscape and horizon.
Robbins Island owner John Hammond said the proposed site of the $1.6 billion project was the “perfect” place for wind farms. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?.
Brown’s opposition — the most high-profile of many voices against the proposal, including local sustainable economy campaigner Craig Garland, who made a Senate tilt this year — was wilfully misread as a backtracking from windpower. It’s the reverse. Mega wind and solar projects are now such a central part of the capitalist energy economy that assessment of individual projects is now a necessary green activity.
As both Brown and Richard Denniss pointed out, the Franklin Dam campaign of the late ’70s was against a hydro project in a state whose close to 100% hydro-generated power system had been trumpeted for decades as a proto-green wonder of the world. But the Franklin scheme was an unnecessary dam, a product of the state’s Hydro-Electric Commission flexing its muscles.
Starting to run this sort of politics is full of contradictions, but it can be resolved. Take bird strike rates for example. For years the coal lobbies have been using this against wind farms; their sudden interest in conservation is touching. Touching, and spurious. The overall figure for wind farm-caused bird deaths pales in comparison to the two biggest causes: buildings and cats, both of which cause bird deaths in the billions. But that doesn’t mean that particular habitats can’t be a factor in deciding against a particular project.
The issue of landscape and surroundings is equally complex. For years the fossil lobby, responsible for vast belching coal stations, would point to a clump of four elegantly-shaped turbines, white against a blue sky, and decry “the eyesore”. Once again, desperate hypocrisy: this was the enthusiasm for “deep green” untouched landscapes, pseudo-wilderness vistas.
Tony Abbott’s rendering of wind turbines is the perfect and predictable paradoxical reaction to the sight of clean, low-impact human progress: their “satanic” aspect is that they’re annihilating the necessary performance of domination that fossil extraction involves, and which creates the world in which Abbott’s political life has meaning.
But it’s the very spread of the industry which means that we can start to question where it’s sited. Ideally, we don’t want turbine vistas dominating whole vistas — aside from desert or sea areas, where I think large arrays have a beauty of their own — and an area like Robbins Island, where sea, land and coast intermingle with great beauty would be heavily compromised by more than 150 turbines, however arrayed.
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That question is also expressive of the wider issue, as such power becomes catnip for investors. What is the power for? The Robbins Island scheme is Tasmanian “development” par excellence: reliant on public expenditure (new power-transfer cabling to the mainland), likely to make a motza for a very few people, with the local populace offered the crumbs of a short-term surge of construction jobs. It’s part of a much larger trashing of the Tasmanian north west, which includes wholesale logging of the Tarkine. Local jobs boosters say a backward, peripheral state and region like north west Tasmania has to take what it can get.
But that dilemma simply brings the wider dilemma of renewables and development into clearer focus. What is going to steer renewables development? Are we just going to try and plug the holes in runaway consumption left by an increasingly uneconomic fossil sector?
To do that will simply deepen the epochal challenge we face — one as cultural and existential as metabolic — of a world chasing the perfect abundant energy solution forever just ’round the corner. That will inevitably create a public demand for nuclear power, and the idea that we can run “boutique” nuclear reactors at no risk.
“Nuclear reactors the size of a car” the nuclear boosters say of the new thorium reactors. Really? So large enough to park them in a van in the centre of a city? Sounds great.
Decades ago, when wind and solar were low-yield and experimental, the advocacy of them was contained within a wider project of changing the way we live, to get out of the futile game of chasing never-ending growth. But that politics fell away as the arc of the 1960s created and turned downwards. Then as a green/progressive movement arose based on a new social class with a great deal of power invested in a high-tech society, the renewables revolution started up and surged ahead. It is now so dominant that increasing numbers of green protests or resistances will be to particular expressions of it.
That is a sign of further victory, not defeat. Pretty soon, the fossil lobby will realise that, and shut up about it, in the same way they suddenly stopped talking about SA’s Tesla battery, or “wind-turbine syndrome”.
Who can blame Abbott and Costello for gazing upon a turbine and feeling an obscure unease at something twisting in the wind?
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